Surah Baqarah >> Currently viewing Surah Baqarah Ayat 1 (2:1)
Surah Baqarah First Ayah in Arabic:
DR. GHALI Alif, Lam, Mim. (These are the names of three letters from the Arabic alphabet, probably indicating that this inimitable Revelation, the Qur’an, is made of this Arabic alphabet. Only Allah Knows their meaning here).
MUHSIN KHAN Alif-Lam-Mim. [These letters are one of the miracles of the Quran and none but Allah (Alone) knows their meanings].
PICKTHALL Alif. Lam. Mim.
SAHIH INTERNATIONAL Alif, Lam, Meem.
MUFTI TAQI USMANI Alif. Lam. Mim.
ABDUL HALEEM Alif Lam Mim
ABUL ALA MAUDUDI Alif, Lam, Mim.
Surah Baqarah Ayat 1 Tafseer
Here we’ve provided different sources of commentary to help with understanding the meaning of Ayat 1 of Surah Baqarah.
The individual letters in the beginning of some Surahs are among those things whose knowledge Allah has kept only for Himself. This was reported from Abu Bakr, `Umar, `Uthman, `Ali and Ibn Mas`ud. It was said that these letters are the names of some of the Surahs. It was also said that they are the beginnings that Allah chose to start the Surahs of the Qur’an with. Khasif stated that Mujahid said, “The beginnings of the Surahs, such as Qaf, Sad, Ta Sin Mim and Alif Lam Ra, are just some letters of the alphabet.” Some linguists also stated that they are letters of the alphabet and that Allah simply did not cite the entire alphabet of twenty-eight letters. For instance, they said, one might say, “My son recites Alif, Ba, Ta, Tha… ” he means the entire alphabet although he stops before mentioning the rest of it. This opinion was mentioned by Ibn Jarir.
If one removes the repetitive letters, then the number of letters mentioned at the beginning of the Surahs is fourteen: Alif, Lam, Mim, Sad, Ra, Kaf, Ha, Ya, `Ayn, Ta, Sin, Ha, Qaf, Nun.
So glorious is He Who made everything subtly reflect His wisdom.
Moreover, the scholars said, “There is no doubt that Allah did not reveal these letters for jest and play.” Some ignorant people said that some of the Qur’an does not mean anything, (meaning, such as these letters) thus committing a major mistake. On the contrary, these letters carry a specific meaning. Further, if we find an authentic narration leading to the Prophet that explains these letters, we will embrace the Prophet’s statement. Otherwise, we will stop where we were made to stop and will proclaim,
(We believe in it; all of it (clear and unclear verses) is from our Lord) (3:7).
The scholars did not agree on one opinion or explanation regarding this subject. Therefore, whoever thinks that one scholar’s opinion is correct, he is obliged to follow it, otherwise it is better to refrain from making any judgment on this matter. Allah knows best.
The wisdom behind mentioning these letters in the beginning of the Surahs, regardless of the exact meanings of these letters, is that they testify to the miracle of the Qur’an. Indeed, the servants are unable to produce something like the Qur’an, although it is comprised of the same letters with which they speak to each other. This opinion was mentioned by Ar-Razi in his Tafsir who related it to Al-Mubarrid and several other scholars. Al-Qurtubi also related this opinion to Al-Farra’ and Qutrub. Az-Zamakhshari agreed with this opinion in his book, Al-Kashshaf. In addition, the Imam and scholar Abu Al-`Abbas Ibn Taymiyyah and our Shaykh Al-Hafiz Abu Al-Hajjaj Al-Mizzi agreed with this opinion. Al-Mizzi told me that it is also the opinion of Shaykh Al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah. KAz-Zamakhshari said that these letters, “Were not all mentioned once in the beginning of the Qur’an. Rather, they were repeated so that the challenge (against the creation) is more daring. Similarly, several stories were mentioned repeatedly in the Qur’an, and also the challenge was repeated in various areas (i.e., to produce something like the Qur’an). Sometimes, one letter at a time was mentioned, such as Sad, Nun and Qaf. Sometimes two letters were mentioned, such as
(Ha Mim) (44:1) Sometimes, three letters were mentioned, such as,
(Alif Lam Mim (2: 1)) and four letters, such as,
(`Alif Lam Mim Ra) (13:1), and
(Alif Lam Mim Sad) (7:1).
Sometimes, five letters were mentioned, such as,
(Kaf Ha Ya `Ayn Sad) (19:1), and;
(Ha Mim. `Ayn Sin Qaf) (42:1-2).
This is because the words that are used in speech are usually comprised of one, two, three, four, or five letters.”
Every Surah that begins with these letters demonstrates the Qur’an’s miracle and magnificence, and this fact is known by those well-versed in such matters. The count of these Surahs is twenty-nine. For instance, Allah said,
(Alif Lam Mim) This is the Book (the Qur’an), wherein there is no doubt (2:1-2),
(Alif Lam Mim. Allah! La ilaha illa Huwa (none has the right to be worshipped but He), Al-Hayyul-Qayyuum (the Ever Living, the One Who sustains and protects all that exists). It is He Who has sent down the Book (the Qur’an) to you (Muhammad ) with truth, confirming what came before it.) (3:1-3), and,
(Alif Lam Mim Sad. (This is the) Book (the Qur’an) sent down unto you (O Muhammad ), so let not your breast be narrow therefrom) (7:1-2).
Also, Allah said,
(Alif Lam Ra. (This is) a Book which We have revealed unto you (O Muhammad ) in order that you might lead mankind out of darkness (of disbelief and polytheism) into the light (of belief in the Oneness of Allah and Islamic Monotheism) by their Lord’s leave) (14:1),
(Alif Lam Mim. The revelation of the Book (this Qur’an) in which there is no doubt, is from the Lord of the `Alamin (mankind, Jinn and all that exists)!) (32:1-2),
(Ha Mim. A revelation from (Allah) the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful) (41:1-2), and,
(Ha Mim. `Ain Sin Qaf. Likewise Allah, the Almighty, the Wise sends revelation to you (O Muhammad ) as (He sent revelation to) those before you.) (42:1-3).
There are several other Ayat that testify to what we have mentioned above, and Allah knows best.
This surah is one of the earliest to be revealed soon after the migration of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions from Makkah to Madinah in 622 CE. It is the longest surah in the Qur’an.
From the varied and wide-ranging context of its verses, it is safe to assume that they were not all revealed in sequence. A common feature of the long Madinan surahs is that their verses were not revealed in consecutive order. Sometimes, passages of one surah were revealed before the completion of an earlier one. Hence, the convention in deciding the chronological order of the surahs has been based on the dates of the revelation of the opening passages, and not of the complete surah. In this instance, we find that Verses 275-280, prohibiting usury, were among the last Qur’anic revelations, while the opening parts of the surah were revealed early in the Madinah period.
The composition and arrangement of the verses within each surah of the Qur’an is fixed by God and was directly intimated to Prophet Muhammad. Al-Tirmidhi reports that `Abdullah ibn `Abbas, a close and learned Companion of the Prophet, said that he had asked `Uthman ibn `Affan, the third Caliph who is universally recognized as having authorized the compilation of the Qur’anic text as we have it today, why Surah 8, al-Anfal, consisting of less than 100 verses, was placed before Surah 9, al-Tawbah, which comprises over 100 verses, and which, unlike other surahs, does not contain the usual opening phrase of “In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful”? He further enquired from him why Surah 8 was grouped with the seven long surahs [that appear at the beginning of the Qur’an].
Uthman answered, “The Prophet (peace be upon him) used to receive verses or passages from several surahs at the same time. He would call the scribes and instruct them to put specific verses at specified places in their respective surahs. Al-Anfal was one of the earliest surahs revealed in Madinah while al-Tawbah was one of the latest, but their subject matter was very similar that I suspected they might be one surah. The Prophet passed away without clarifying this particular point. Therefore, I placed them one after the other without separation.” This account makes it clear that the arrangement of the verses within every surah was decided on the Prophet’s instructions.
Furthermore, authentic ahadith related by al-Bukhari and Muslim mention that the Prophet used to recite the Qur’an for the Archangel Gabriel every night during the month of Ramađan, and that both the Prophet and Gabriel recited the whole Qur’an for each other. Needless to say, he recited the Qur’an in the right arrangement of its verses and surahs.
Anyone who studies the Qur’an closely, and tastes the unique and rich experience of living within its ambience, will immediately identify the distinct character of every one of its surahs. Every surah has an aura and a personality of its own, with unique and well-defined features, and a feel that makes it stand apart from all the rest. Moreover, every surah revolves around a central theme, or a number of major themes related to one another by a common thread or idea. Every surah radiates its own atmosphere of meaning and essence, within which its theme, or themes, are discussed using the same well integrated and well coordinated style and approach. It also has its own special rhythm and musical pulse which accord with the meaning and context of its topics and content.
These general outstanding features are common to all surahs, including the longer ones, such as the present one.
This surah deals with several issues which revolve in total harmony around closely interrelated twin central lines. On the one hand, the surah discusses the attitude of the Israelites towards Islam and the burgeoning Muslim community in Madinah. It describes aspects of the hostile reception they gave the new religion and their reaction to the Prophet Muhammad and the growing community of his followers. It explores the close and unholy alliance that had developed between the Jews and the hypocrites of Madinah, professing belief in Islam, on the one hand, and between the Jews and the Arab idolaters of the rest of Arabia, on the other.
On the other hand, the surah, having established the Israelites failure to uphold God’s trust and honour their covenant with Him, discusses the vicissitudes faced by the Muslim community during its formative years, and the manner and environment in which it developed, and prepared and mobilized itself for the great task of inheriting the trust of the establishment of God’s sovereignty on earth. The surah decisively and swiftly strips the Israelites of their association with Abraham, the great proponent of monotheistic belief, and the source of all the honours and privileges that go with it.
This two-fold central theme forms the backbone of the surah’s subject matter as a whole and shadows the growth and progress of Islam and the Muslim community in Madinah during the period from 622 to 632 CE.
To set the contents of this surah in their appropriate context, it would be pertinent to throw more light on the historic environment and the religious and social setting in which the verses were revealed. Before we do that, however, it is important to point out that, in general terms, what the Muslims had to face in those early days was a miniature of, and a rehearsal for, what has occurred throughout the later history of Islam, albeit with some variations of scope and detail. The setbacks and the achievements, the allies and the opponents have invariably been the same.
This fact highlights the role and status of the Qur’an as the unchallenged, immutable and incontrovertible authoritative reference for the religious, ethical and legislative principles and systems of Islam. It further affirms the unique property of the Qur’anic text as being ever fresh and responsive to the inevitable changes that come with the perpetuation and progress of human life.
With these qualities, the Qur’an remains the eternal guiding light for Muslims, despite the difficulties and hardships they have to suffer or the animosity and hostility they have to face. This, in itself, is an aspect of the inimitability and unsurpassed veracity and beauty of every verse in the Qur’an.
Seeking a Secure Base
The Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Makkah to Madinah in 622 CE was undertaken after meticulous planning and with appropriate care and attention to detail. Leaving Makkah had become unavoidable in consequence of events: the indigenous Quraysh Arabs of Makkah were pursuing a relentlessly hostile and oppressive campaign against the Prophet personally, and his mission and followers in general. This campaign had intensified following the double personal tragedy of 619 CE in which the Prophet had lost his wife Khadijah, who had been to him a pillar of personal support and strength, and his uncle Abu Ţalib, his guardian and protector. This tragedy greatly restricted Muhammad’s movement and his followers’ activities in and around Makkah.
While the conflict between Muhammad and his tribal cousins, led by Abu Lahab, Amr ibn Hisham and Abu Sufyan ibn Harb, reached a stalemate within Makkah, his message was gaining converts and supporters outside it. The majority of provincial Arabs, however, elected to watch from a distance what they viewed as a purely internal dispute over power within the Quraysh. It would not do for them to become embroiled in supporting the religion of a man whose own tribe had denounced him, especially since that tribe held the custodianship of the sacred Ka`bah and assumed supreme religious authority for the whole of Arabia.
The Prophet had to seek an alternative home for his new faith, and a base where he could be protected, so that he could break the deadlock he had reached in Makkah, and be allowed to pursue his commission unimpeded. This, in my view, was the first and most important reason for leaving Makkah.
Before Madinah, other destinations had been proposed and tried as alternatives to Makkah. In 615, only a few years after Muhammad’s call to prophethood in 610 CE, a number of early Muslims had emigrated to Abyssinia. It would not be correct to say that they had gone there for reasons of personal safety alone. Had this been the case, the emigrants would have included the weakest and least supported elements among the Muslims. These were the ones at the receiving end of a sustained persecution campaign. But the reverse was the case. The emigrants included some of the most powerful of the Prophet’s followers and tribesmen. The majority of them were from the tribe of Quraysh, including Ja`far ibn Abi Ţalib, and a number of young men who were accustomed to providing protection to the Prophet, such as al-Zubayr ibn al-Awwam, `Abdur Rahman ibn Awf, Abu Salamah al Makhzumi, `Uthman ibn Affan, to mention but a few. There were women belonging to some of the most prominent families of the Quraysh, such as Umm Habibah, daughter of Abu Sufyan, the Quraysh’s unrivalled non-Muslim leader. Such women would never be persecuted in Makkah.
There were, no doubt, other reasons for the Muslims’ emigration to Abyssinia. There was the need to shake the religious and social foundations of the Quraysh’s most noble and powerful families. There could be no greater insult or threat to the Quraysh dynasties than seeing their proudest and most noble sons and daughters running away for conscientious and religious reasons, leaving their cultural heritage and tribal homeland behind.
Whatever other reasons there might have been for the Muslims’ emigration to Abyssinia, the fact remains that the search had started very early on for a safe haven for Islam, or a secure base where it could flourish and spread freely. This is further supported by reports of the Negus of Abyssinia’s conversion to Islam, which only the threatened rebellion of his patriarchs prevented him from making public, as some reliable accounts confirm.
Following the death of his uncle, Abu Ţalib, in 619 CE and as a result of the Quraysh’s growing hostility, the Prophet sought help from the Thaqif tribe who lived in the town of Ţa’if, some 90 km east of Makkah. The effort ended in failure because the Thaqif gave him a most hostile reception. They mocked him and heaped scorn on him. They let loose their louts and their children to chase him and throw stones at him, causing his feet to bleed.
The Prophet’s biographers tell us that he took refuge in an orchard belonging to Utbah ibn Rabi`ah and his brother Shaybah, where he made a most moving and emotional appeal to God, saying, “To You, my Lord, I complain of my weakness, lack of support and the humiliation I am made to receive. Most compassionate and merciful! You are the Lord of the weak, and You are my Lord. To whom do You leave me? To a distant person who receives me with hostility? Or an enemy to whom You have given power over me? If You are not displeased with me I do not care what I face. I would, however, be much happier with Your mercy. I seek refuge in Your face by which all darkness is dispelled and both this life and the life to come are put in their right courses against incurring Your wrath or being the subject of Your anger. To You I submit, until I earn Your pleasure. Everything is powerless without Your support.”
A Major Breakthrough
Not long after that, the Prophet’s, and Islam’s, fortunes suddenly changed for the better. At a place called `Aqabah near Makkah, the Prophet had two crucial historic meetings in 621 and 622 CE with a group of Arabs from Madinah, during which they pledged their allegiance and support. This was to have a profound and far-reaching effect on the whole future of Islam and the Muslim community.
Towards the end of the Makkan period, the Prophet Muhammad embarked on a concerted effort of making contact with various influential Arab communities and tribes to introduce Islam to them and seek their following and support.
The Khazraj and the Aws, the two Arab tribes of Madinah, having lived side by side with the Jews, had often heard them boast about “the Prophet who will come soon” and “whose day is at hand”, who would lead the Jews to victory over the Arabs. A group of the Khazraj pilgrims met the Prophet who explained to them his message. They immediately realized that he was the very Prophet the Jews were talking about. They were determined to get to him before the Jews did. Having met him and listened to what he had to say, they accepted him and became Muslims. They said to him: “We have left our people in an unprecedented state of mutual hostility. May God make you the cause of their unity.” On their return home, they reported what they did to their people who approved their action.
The following year a delegation comprising members of the two tribes of the Aws and the Khazraj, arrived in Makkah to meet the Prophet. They declared their acceptance of Islam and their allegiance. He sent them back with one of his senior companions to teach them the Qur’an and instruct them in their new religion.
At the following annual Pilgrimage, a larger group from both tribes came to Makkah, and offered to make a covenant with the Prophet Muhammad. This was attended by his then non-Muslim uncle al-’Abbas. The covenant bound them to support Muhammad and defend him as they would their own families and property. This is known as the second `Aqabah covenant.
Abdullah ibn Rawahah of the Madinah people is reported to have stood up and asked the Prophet to “put forward your Lord’s and your own conditions.”
Muhammad replied, “My Lord’s condition is that you worship Him alone and take no other gods beside Him. As for myself, my condition is that you give me the protection you would give yourselves and your property.”
Abdullah asked, “What do we receive in return?”
“Paradise!” the Prophet replied.
They said, “This is a profitable deal on which none will go back.”
Thus the Arabs of Madinah committed themselves to Islam and to following Muhammad and defending him. Islam was to spread rapidly and entrench itself among them. The Muslims of Makkah began to arrive in Madinah in droves, abandoning their belongings and material possessions and taking only their faith. They were warmly welcomed by their fellow Muslims, who offered to share with them everything they had.
Eventually the time came for the Prophet himself to migrate to Madinah. He was accompanied by his close and trusted companion Abu Bakr. At last Muhammad had found the safe haven he had been looking for all those years, where he and his followers would be free to proclaim the faith and establish their community. The Prophet’s arrival in Madinah was to prove a crucial turning point in the history of Islam.
The Making of a Unique Community
The community taking shape in Madinah was a unique and distinguished one, praised repeatedly throughout the Qur’an. This surah opens with a concise, generally applicable, definition of true believers. Nevertheless, it refers specifically to those early pioneers of Islam: “This is the Book; there is no doubt about it, a guidance for the God-fearing. Those who believe in what lies beyond the reach of human perception, observe Prayer and give of what We bestow upon them. Those who believe in what has been revealed to you and what was revealed before you, and are certain of the Hereafter. Those follow their Lord’s guidance, and they shall surely prosper.” (Verses 1-5)
In contrast, we are immediately given a description of the unbelievers, which is again general and universal but applies specifically to those who rejected Islam and opposed it, in and around both Makkah and Madinah: “For the unbelievers, it is alike whether you forewarn them or not, they will not accept the faith. God has sealed their hearts and ears; their eyes are covered; and a grievous punishment awaits them.” (Verses 6-7) In Madinah, a third group emerged, the hypocrites, or al-Munafiqun. This faction had not been noticeable in Makkah; its rise was prompted by the Prophet’s arrival and settlement in Madinah, as outlined earlier. That was because in Makkah, Islam had no sovereign political entity or force, and the Muslims remained soft targets for persecution and repression by the rest of the Arabs. Those who accepted Islam had to be brave and sincere, prepared to endure all kinds of hardship and terror.
In Madinah, hitherto known as Yathrib, the picture was very different. Islam was gradually gaining strength and the Muslims were developing into a dominant force. This became even more evident following their decisive victory over the non-Muslim Arabs at Badr, 125 kms south of Madinah, in February of 624 CE. This caused some people, including a number of leading and privileged figures, to feign acceptance of Islam merely to save their position and protect their social and tribal status and interests. Thus they came to be known as the ‘hypocrites’ in Islamic terminology. One of the most prominent of these was `Abdullah ibn Ubayy ibn Salul who, prior to the Prophet’s arrival in Madinah, was about to be crowned as a king of the city.
At the beginning of the surah, we find a detailed description of the hypocrites (Verses 8-20) from which it can easily be seen that they included those who had reluctantly embraced Islam and had not totally relinquished their self-pride and arrogance.
We also find a reference to their ‘evil companions’, which the context of the surah indicates to be the Jews, who were at the forefront of opposition and hostility to Islam. The surah devotes a fair amount of space to a series of stinging attacks on the Jews who were ranged against Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
The Jews were the first community to confront Islam in Madinah, for several reasons. As a people with an established religious heritage and culture, the Jews enjoyed a privileged and highly esteemed position among the illiterate Arabs of Madinah from both tribes of the Aws and the Khazraj. However, the pagan Arabs had not shown any great enthusiasm or inclination to embrace the Jewish religion. Nevertheless, they acknowledged that the Jews were better versed in matters of religious wisdom than they were. Moreover, the tense, and at times bloody, rivalry existing between these two tribes provided the Jews with an ideal environment for manipulation and exploitation.
When Islam came to Madinah, those advantages and privileges came under threat. Not only did Islam come to embrace and endorse Jewish Scriptures and beliefs, but it immediately aimed to eliminate the existing a unified and divisions them into harmonious community, unique in the whole history of mankind.
Above all, the Jews had claimed to be God’s own chosen people, heirs of earlier prophets, true inheritors and custodians of the divine message, and the people from among whom the new Prophet, foretold in their own scriptures, was most likely to be selected. When an Arab prophet emerged, they expected him to discredit them and restrict the new religion to his own people, the Arabs. But, as Muhammad went on to introduce his message to the Jews, as recipients of earlier revelations and therefore more likely to respond and give him their support, they became arrogant and self-important and took offence.
They were overwhelmed with envy and jealousy towards Muhammad on two grounds: first, for being chosen as God’s Messenger and, second, for the rapid and growing success he was having in and around Madinah.
But, of course, there was another very important reason for their unease and hostility. They had seen the threat of becoming marginalized and isolated within Madinah itself, where they had held spiritual as well as commercial sway for such a long time. The alternative would be to embrace the new faith and become assimilated into the Muslim community, losing their identity and separate existence for ever. Their options were thus severely restricted.
These factors explain the stance taken by the Jews towards Islam; a stance which has been extensively explored on several occasions in the Qur’an. In this surah, we find the Qur’an appealing to the Israelites, reminding them of the attitudes and conduct of their ancestors towards earlier Prophets, and recalling their stubbornness and intransigence, and their betrayal of God’s trust and covenant.
The images and examples cited from the chequered and turbulent Jewish past were familiar in Muhammad’s time, and reflected the true nature of the Jewish psyche and attitude. Those features have accompanied the Jews in every generation and remain typical of their behaviour even today. For this reason, the Qur’an has adopted a unique and revealing style in addressing all Israelite generations as one and the same, which again makes these accounts relevant for all time: past, present and future. Thus, the Qur’anic words shall remain a timely and pertinent guide, and a warning, to Muslims in every generation with respect to the identity and potential intrigues of the enemies of their faith.
The Surah’s Central Theme
A significant part of the surah is devoted to the foundation and essential preparation of the Muslim community which was to carry God’s message to the world, the Israelites having notably failed to undertake that noble task. Indeed, they were now in opposition to its final version, Islam.
Having introduced the three main types of humanity: believers, unbelievers and hypocrites, and having made a clear though implicit reference to the ‘evil ones’, the surah addresses mankind as a whole, asking them to worship the One God and fully acknowledge the revelations He has bestowed on His Messenger. It affirms God’s favour and wisdom in creating the earth and the heavens, and all that is in them, for the use and benefit of man. (Verses 21-29)
This is followed by an account of the occasion when God appointed man as His vicegerent and representative on earth, outlining the terms and conditions of that auspicious appointment. (Verses 30-39)
The following section of the surah is devoted entirely to an extensive and wideranging debate with the Israelites, dealing critically with various aspects of their religious and historic record. (Verses 40-141)
The discussion focuses on the Israelites’ reception of Islam in Madinah. They were the first to actively reject it. They deliberately confused and concealed facts. They adopted a two-faced attitude towards faith and attempted to distort God’s words. They cheated, lied and broke faith with the Muslims in the hope of turning them away from their religion. They claimed the exclusive possession of God’s trust and a monopoly of righteousness. They became envious of the Muslims and spared no effort to undermine their existence and cause them harm. Last, but not least, they allied themselves with Islam’s enemies, the hypocrites and pagan Arabs, and were prepared to conspire with them against the Muslim community.
In consequence, the surah launches a bitter and fierce attack on the Jews, drawing its justification from their behaviour towards Moses and their reaction to the laws given them by God and the prophets and messengers He sent them. All generations of the Jewish nation are addressed as one group.
The attack ends with an admonition to the Muslims never to hold any hope that the Jews will ever reconcile themselves to accepting or acknowledging Islam. It goes on to lambast the Jewish claim to the monotheistic legacy of Abraham, and to establish Muhammad and his followers as the true heirs of Abraham’s faith who are entitled to inherit his covenant with God. It affirms that the inheritance by Muslims of the guardianship of God’s message to man had come as a fulfilment of Abraham’s and Ishmael’s prayers to God while constructing the Ka`bah, the symbol of surrender and the Sacred House devoted to the worship of the One God.
From then on, the surah addresses the Muslims, instructing them how to fulfil their role as guardians and carriers of God’s Message to mankind. It offers guidance on the beliefs and concepts that were to distinguish the Muslim faith and way of life for all time to come. (Verses 142-283) This part begins by defining the qiblah, the direction to which Muslims should turn when praying. It was to be the sacred site at Makkah housing the Ka`bah, the House of God built by Abraham and Ishmael, its first keepers and custodians. The surah tells us that even while the Muslims had been praying towards Jerusalem, the centre of Judaism, Muhammad was privately yearning for the Ka`bah to become the exclusive direction for the Muslims during Prayer. (Verse 144)
The surah goes on to outline the principles and systems of Islam in several fields including faith and outlook, rites of worship and religious matters, personal and public behaviour and conduct. It teaches the Muslims that those who give their lives for the cause of God never die; that insecurity, hunger and poverty are not necessarily evil in themselves, but are means to test the believers, to assess their potential and refine and strengthen their capacity to advance God’s cause in the world. It reassures Muslims that God is their patron and will always be on their side, while their detractors and opponents will be led astray into a wilderness of darkness by impostors, false mentors and bogus leaders. The surah outlines aspects of lawful and unlawful food and drink, penal measures, rules governing wills, fasting, war, and pilgrimage. It dwells at length on the regulation and organization of family affairs, including marriage and divorce, and covers rules governing spending, usury, lending and trade.
Although during this extensive discussion the surah refers, from time to time, to instances and glimpses from Jewish history, the main body of the second part deals basically with the structure and organization of the Muslim community, and the essential features and qualifications it requires to uphold God’s message and fulfil its prime role as His trustee and the custodian of His message for all time to come.
The following section of the surah is almost entirely devoted to the education, formation and building of the Muslim community, which was destined to take up the task of expounding God’s message to the rest of humanity. We continue, from time to time, to come across discourses and arguments dealing with those opposed to Islam, especially the Israelites, and their plots and schemes to thwart its progress and stifle the growth of the Muslim community. There are also instructions to the Muslims on how to fight back and what precautions to take in order to avoid their traps.
Nevertheless, the chief concern of this section, and of the rest of the surah, remains the establishment and codification of the distinguishing qualities and features of the Muslim community. It is a community that has its own laws, confirming and succeeding those of earlier Divine Revelation, its own qiblah, and above all its distinct and original outlook on the world and life as a whole. It is a community that is fully cognizant of its relationship with God and of its leading role in the world, and the responsibilities and obligations stemming from that role. It is a community that is confidently and loyally poised to submit fully to God’s will and command, as ordained and articulated in the Qur’an and the teachings and work of the Prophet Muhammad, God’s peace and blessings be upon him.
We learn that the qiblah issue is related to the fact that the Muslim community is a moderate and middle-of-the-road community. By virtue of their message and role in the world, Muslims shall be God’s witness to the rest of mankind, while Muhammad shall be a witness to them. The Qur’an accords the Muslims a leading status in the world, and calls on them to work hard, persevere and make all the sacrifices that are required of them to earn that status and fulfil their role, putting their trust fully in God’s will and wisdom. We come across some important elaboration of basic Islamic concepts such as taqwa, fearing God, and `amal şalih, good works. This comes in the course of refuting Jewish arguments concerning the change of the qiblah, which are based on distortion of the facts and faulty interpretations of Divine instructions.
The surah then turns to setting out rules and regulations for the religious and practical life of the community. These include penalties for capital offences and rules relating to wills, fasting during the month of Ramadan, going to war during the sacred months and within the surrounds of the Ka`bah, the Hajj, or Pilgrimage, drinking and gambling, and family affairs. The common denominator underpinning all these duties and regulations is sound belief and strong faith in God Almighty.
The section contains a discussion on jihad, citing an important episode from the history of the Israelites after Moses, during the reign of the Prophet David, which has many essential lessons for the Muslims as heirs of Abraham’s religious tradition and the responsibility of world leadership.
The surah has given us a good idea of the nature of the battle the Qur’an was fighting and the environment it was fighting in while it was being revealed, and the objectives it was aiming to achieve in raising and building the Muslim community in the 7th century CE. The atmosphere among the Makkan Arabs was one of intrigue, mischief, confusion and falsehood. Human weakness and greed also had to be taken into account.
Above all, the Qur’an was aiming to establish and articulate upright concepts and sound principles on which the community could be raised, and to chart for it a course for a righteous and dignified leadership of the world.
The enduring qualities of the Qur’an are vindicated by the fact that the principles, rules and instructions it propounded fourteen centuries ago remain today, and for all time to come, essential for the regeneration and reconstruction of Muslim society. The battles and the issues and the controversies remain the same. The enemies, and the means and weapons used against the Qur’an and its followers also remain fundamentally the same. To fight and win today’s battles, Muslims will need to follow the Qur’anic principles and teachings which shaped and guided that pioneering Muslim community of Madinah.
Muslims today need the Qur’an for a better and a more realistic understanding of the world and their role in it. No other source exists that can provide them with the inspiration, the practical guidance and the complete way of life they need to forge ahead and assume the leadership of the world again.
The closing two verses take us full circle to the opening of the surah, affirming the Muslim world community’s eternal belief in all Prophets and messages sent by God to man, without exception, and in what lies beyond the reach of human perception. They assert the Muslims’ total unqualified faith in, and submission to, the One God.
Thus, the ending of the surah coalesces smoothly with its beginning, as the subject matter is shaped and honed to give a complete and superb example of the Qur’an’s inimitable and powerful style.
This opening passage of the surah outlines the essential features of the religious groups the Muslim community faced in Madinah, with the exception of the Jews, to whom only a brief, but adequate, reference is made. They are described as the ‘satans’ or ‘evil companions’ of the hypocrites; a description that says a great deal about their qualities and the nature of their role. They are dealt with in more detail later on in the surah.
In delineating the features of these groups, the special characteristics of the Qur’anic style are clearly displayed. Words are used as an artist uses lines and colours, and through them images slowly begin to take on shape and life.
At the outset, in a few words and sentences, profiles of three types of people merge, each a true representation of a group of human beings such as recurs in every day and age. Indeed, all mankind in all ages and places can be classified into these types. This is a fine example of the eloquence and power of the Qur’anic style.
In these brief and highly informative sentences and verses, pictures are brought to life with a power and focus that no lengthy or elaborate rendition could ever provide. A few rapid touches combine with the beauties of style and rhythm to supreme effect.
Following this concise and powerful introduction, the surah addresses all people in the world, calling on them to belong to the first category of mankind. It urges man to believe in the One God, the Creator, Sustainer and Provider, who has no equals or partners. It challenges those sceptics who doubt the truth of the Prophet Muĥammad’s message, and of the revelations he received, to come up with a single surah to compare with the Qur’an. It complements the challenge with a severe warning of horrible punishment for those who reject God’s message, and a promise of everlasting bliss and happiness for those who trust and believe in God and His revelations.
The passage then responds to certain Jews and hypocrites who had questioned the use of parables in the Qur’an, which they used as an excuse to doubt the truth and validity of Divine revelations altogether. It gives them a stern warning that they are departing from God’s path, in contrast to the believers, who are drawn closer to God and strengthened in faith. It denounces their denial of God who gives life and takes it away, the Creator who controls all and whose knowledge of things and events in this vast universe is all-embracing and comprehensive. It is God who has bestowed His grace on mankind by making the earth and all that it contains, to be under their control and for their benefit.
These are the main themes of this opening passage of the surah, and we shall now go on to look into them in more detail.
The Qualities of True Believers
The surah opens with three Arabic letters: “Alif, lam, mim.” (Verse 1) This is immediately followed by the statement: “This is the Book, there is no doubt about it, a guidance for the God-fearing.’’ (Verse 2)
Several surahs in the Qur’an begin with a combination of Arabic letters in this way, and interpretations of these abstract openings vary quite widely. The one we tend to favour is that these are meant to emphasize the fact that the Qur’an is a book composed of the letters of the Arabic language, in the same way as they are used by the Arabs who were the first people addressed by this divine revelation. Nevertheless, it is such an unparalleled and transcendent work that no Arab writer, using the same letters and the same language, could ever match its majesty and power. Rivals are repeatedly challenged to compose a book similar to it, or only ten surahs, or even a single surah, of matching quality. No one has ever been able to take up the challenge.
This is true for all God’s creation. Soil, for example, is made up of elements of known properties. The best man has been able to make out of soil is bricks, tiles, vessels and structures of various types and uses, which are in some cases very sophisticated. But using these same elements, God has created life, the one outstanding secret that remains far beyond man’s intellectual and creative abilities.
Similarly, the same letters and words that ordinary people, speaking the language of the Qur’an, use to articulate expressions and convey meanings and concepts, are used by God to produce the Qur’an as a definitive book stating the final and absolute distinction between truth and falsehood. A comparison between man’s work and the work of God is simply not possible; it is a comparison between the image and the reality, between the dead body and the living soul.
Alif. Lam. Mim.
The Surah begins with the Arabic letters Alif, Lam and Mim (equivalents of A, L and M). Several Surahs begin with a similar combination of letters, for example, Ha, Mim, or Alif, Lam, Mim, Sad. Each of these letters is pronounced separately without the addition of a vowel sound after it. So, the technical term for them is مقطعات (Mugatta` at: isolated letters).
According to certain commentators, the isolated letters are the names of the Surahs at the beginning of which they occur. According to others, they are the symbols of the Divine Names. But the majority of the blessed Companions ؓ and the generation next to them, the تابعین Tabi’ in, and also the later authoritative scholars have preferred the view that the isolated letters are symbols or mysteries, the meaning of which is known to Allah alone or may have been entrusted as a special secret to the Holy Prophet ﷺ not to be communicated to anyone else. That is why no commentary or explanation of these letters has at all been reported from him. The great commentator Al-Qurtubi has adopted this view of the matter, which is summarized below:
“According to ` Amir Al-Sha’bi, Sufyan Al-Thawri and many masters of the science of Hadith, every revealed book contains certain secret signs and symbols and mysteries of Allah; the isolated letters too are the secrets of Allah in the Holy Qur’an, and hence they are among the مشتبہات (Mutashabihat: of hidden meaning), the meaning of which is known to Allah alone, and it is not permissible for us even to enter into any discussion with regard to them. The isolated letters are not, however, without some benefit to us. Firstly, to believe in them and to recite them is in itself a great merit. Secondly, in reciting them we receive spiritual blessings from the unseen world, even if we are not aware of the fact. AI-Qurtubi (رح) adds: “The Blessed Caliphs Abu Bakr, ` Umar, ` Uthman and ` Ali ؓ and most of the Companions like ` Abdullah ibn Mas’ud ؓ firmly held the view that these letters are the secrets of Allah, that we should believe in them as having descended from Allah and recite them exactly in the form in which they have descended, but should not be inquisitive about their meanings, which would be improper”. Citing Al-Qurtubi and others, Ibn Kathir too prefers this view. On the other hand, interpretations of the isolated letters have been reported from great and authentic scholars. Their purpose, however, was only to provide symbolical interpretation, or to awaken the minds of the readers to the indefinite possibilities of meanings that lie hidden in the Holy Qur’an, or just to simplify things; they never wished to claim that these were the meanings intended by Allah Himself. Therefore, it would not be justifiable to challenge such efforts at interpretation since it would go against the considered judgment of veritable scholars.
1. The names of letters of the Arabic alphabet, called huruf muqatta’at, occur at the beginning of several surahs of the Qur’an. At the time of the Qur’anic revelation the use of such letters was a well-known literary device, used by both poets and orators, and we find several instances in the pre-Islamic Arabic literature that has come down to us.
Since the muqatta’at were commonly used the Arabs of that period generally knew what they meant and so they did not present a puzzle. We do not notice, therefore, any contemporaries of the Prophet (peace be on him) raising objections against the Qur’an on the ground that the letters at the beginning of some of its surahs were absurd. For the same reason no Tradition has come down to us of any Companion asking the Prophet about the significance of the muqatta’at. Later on this literary device gradually fell into disuse and hence it became difficult for commentators to determine their precise meanings. It is obvious, however, that deriving right guidance from the Qur’an does not depend on grasping the meaning of these vocables, and that anyone who fails to understand them may still live a righteous life and attain salvation. The ordinary reader, therefore, need not delve too deeply into this matter.